Ariel Kinzinger had a headache. Clark Brinkman coughed and wheezed. LaNesha Collins, feeling physically fine, was frustrated by another day mostly trapped inside looking out at a sepia sun, in Portland, Ore.
“I’ve never been in the thick of smoke like this,” said Collins, an Oregonian like the others. “It’s insane.”
In recent weeks, tens of millions of Americans have lived and breathed through a thick haze of wildfire smoke. In places, it lasted for weeks. The immediate health effects of that are well known to the medical community and anyone who’s been exposed: Eyes sting, throats tighten, snot can turn black.
Respiratory problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be exacerbated, causing spikes in hospital visits. And recent research on the link between wildfire smoke and the flu, even suggests it could increase a person’s risk of contracting COVID-19.
Much less is known though about what happens after the smoke clears.
“Every person who asks me is like, ‘What does this mean for my health a long time from now?,'” says Colleen Reid, a geographer at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the health impacts of wildfire smoke. “And unfortunately we don’t really know.”
The lack of data and information on the long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke is a hole scientists and epidemiologists are quickly trying to fill. Research teams are looking at long-term lung function after smoke exposure, and potential impacts on pregnant women and infants. These efforts have been slowed by the pandemic, but have taken on new urgency with recent events.
Record-breaking wildfires, like those the West Coast has experienced this year, have become a near-annual occurrence. Human-caused climate change is increasing the length and intensity of fire season globally. More people are moving to fire-prone areas. And there’s a growing understanding among land managers and the public that more “good fire” is going to be needed across broad swaths of the U.S. to chip away at a century’s worth of accumulated vegetation in some Western forests. All of this means more people are going to be exposed to smoke more frequently in the future.
“The paradigm’s changing where a [smoke event] is not just this one-time disaster for many communities in the West,” says Sheryl Magzamen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University. “They’re actually chronic disasters that occur every two to three years.”
Smoke travels far
Days of thick smoke are not a new occurrence in many Western communities. But the breadth and duration of the smoke generated by this year’s fires is without modern precedent.
An NPR analysis of air quality data on the West Coast found that 1 in 7 Americans have experienced at least a day of unhealthy air conditions during this